Having helped shape some 50 different brands "from the inside out" over the past 25 years as a senior marketing and development executive, a consultant and National Restaurant Association (NRA) Marketing Executives Group (MEG) board member, Karen Brennan knows a thing or two about branding.
Among them is the fact that nothing about it is easy; the companies that do it well just make it look like it is. With legacy chains making themselves over and many growing through franchising, effective branding matters more than ever. rd+d asked Brennan for some insights.
rd+d: How do you evaluate the strength of a brand?
Brennan: The fundamental thing is to find not just the rational reasons why people care about a brand but the emotional reasons, the connections that relate to consumers in terms of how they think about themselves. They don't just love the brand; the brand is a reflection of them. That's the essence. From there, it's like a landscape. You paint it into every element of the guest experience, from the food to the service to the physical plant to the marketing. A lot of companies think it's just a matter of marketing — you have a great logo and you put it on everything. That's not it. It's about making an emotional connection on every level.
rd+d: Is that type of 'essence-based' branding something new?
Brennan: No, but companies that have been doing it well for many years have really come to the forefront. Take Starbucks. Everybody wanted to be Starbucks but people didn't really get what that meant. What it meant was that Starbucks clearly understood from the beginning how what they do connects with people's self-esteem and image of who they are. That's a profound connection and everything about their brand speaks to that — the décor, the social consciousness, the music...the whole package. Would-be imitators said, well, let's pick the same color of paint, or let's have soft seating, or any one of those technical things. They missed the bigger point, which is that Starbuck's started with the human connection and built it out from there.
rd+d: So brands are people, too?
Brennan: I do believe that brands are an extension of the individuals who had the original vision. Very often, the brand's persona in every way reflects that human quality. Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz's passion, his presentation, his love of coffee and his ethics come through loud and clear, and the Starbucks brand is very much an extension of his understanding of it from the start. On the flip side, some people decide they want to do a restaurant, thinking it looks pretty easy. They want to tap a trend or take advantage of a real estate opportunity. They hire someone to come up with a great brand for them but they don't really care about the food or the service. Those are the brands that lack heart and soul and that I don't predict great things for.
rd+d: How can companies keep that heart and soul alive as they grow, original visionaries exit and ownership changes?
Brennan: It's helpful to develop a brand bible that outlines everything from concept and core values to logo, fonts and color palettes. Closely held companies may not need to, but when you start letting other people in they're going to need an easy way to understand the secret formula.
rd+d: Any suggestions for a good read on branding, or other resources?
Brennan: One book I like is Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. It gives some great insights on what allows a brand to endure. I also recommend getting involved in MEG.